AmeriScan: Dec. 27, 2013

driverless car
A Toyota Prius modified by Google to operate as a driverless car. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson)


Self-Driving Cars, Cheese Brine on Ice, Coca-Cola Hybrids, EPA Gets the Lead Out, Great Lakes, Controlled Burns, Household Dogs

Michigan OKs Road Testing of Self-Driving Cars … Wisconsin Cheese Brine on Ice … Coca-Cola Pours Funds Into Alternative Fuel Fleet … EPA Gets the Lead Out of Soil at Newark Housing Project … Limited Nutrients Changing Great Lakes Ecosystems … Nature Conservancy Works With Feds on Controlled Burns … Household Dogs Protect Against Asthma in Mice


Michigan OKs Road Testing of Self-Driving Cars

LANSING, Michigan, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – Michigan, the center of the U.S. automotive industry, today became the fourth state in the country to allow and regulate the testing of self-driving vehicles.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing the testing of autonomous motor vehicles on Michigan roadways. The governor had called for the measures in his 2013 state of the state address.

“Michigan is the automotive capital of the world,” Governor Snyder said. “By allowing the testing of automated, driverless cars today, we will stay at the forefront in automotive technological advances that will make driving safer and more efficient in the future.”

driverless car
A Toyota Prius modified by Google to operate as a driverless car. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson)

California, Nevada and Florida already have similar laws on the books.

Snyder said companies and universities in Michigan are leading the way in many intelligent, connected vehicle programs aimed at driverless cars. This legislation, he said, is key to the future of research and development of automotive technology in the state.

Senate Bill 169, sponsored by State Senator Mike Kowall, a Republican, allows automakers and upfitters to test automated motor vehicles, but requires a human to be in the driver’s seat to monitor performance and intervene if necessary.

A companion measure, SB 663, also sponsored by Kowall, protects original manufacturers from civil liability for damages caused by modified autonomous vehicles, unless the defect from which the damages resulted was present in the vehicle when it was manufactured.

“The industry is changing. The world is changing. And we want to be heading the pack here,” said Kowall. “We don’t want to be sitting in the back seat.”

Automakers, including Detroit’s Big Three – Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, as well as Toyota, support the legislation and are already testing self-driving vehicles here.

Many cars already on the road include autonomous technologies, such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking and crash avoidance systems.

Kowall’s bill will allow suppliers and “upfitters” to test self-driving vehicles on Michigan roads, provided there is a human inside to protect original manufacturers from civil liability for damages caused by modified vehicles.

By allowing testing in Michigan, Kowall hopes to save local companies money and encourage others to move to his state.

“Number one, it’s going to mean a lot of research and development jobs, and it’s going to mean a lot of companies producing these types of devices are ultimately going to want to move here and be close to the automobile industry,” he said back in March.

Continental, a German company with its U.S. headquarters in the Michigan city of Auburn Hills, has tested its autonomous tech on Volkswagens in Nevada.

Google, the California-based high-tech giant that is developing its own self-driving cars, worked with Kowall’s office during drafting of the bill but ended up opposing the final product because it will enact a prohibition on autonomous vehicle operation outside of testing.

Kowall also worked with Google, which has logged more than 400,000 miles in California as it tests its own fleet of self-driving vehicles. Google Public Policy Manager Leslie Miller told the Michigan Senate Transportation Committee in February, “We believe this technology is only years away, not decades away.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


Wisconsin Mixes Cheese Brine With Salt to Clear Icy Roads

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – The city of Milwaukee is testing cheese brine as a supplement to traditional rock salt for clearing snowy, icy roads.

Earlier this month, Milwaukee began a $1,400 pilot program to repurpose cheese brine, a byproduct of cheesemaking that is usually disposed of as waste. Public Works crews have spread the brine pellets on a small section of roads in Bay View, a neighborhood on Milwaukee’s south side.

road test
A 2010 test of cheese brine mixed with rock salt and sand. Top: 600 pounds per lane mile without brine. Bottom: 400 pounds per lane mile with brine (Photos courtesy Moe Norby).

In an average winter season, the city spends between $6 million and $14 million to manage snow and ice on roadways. The cheese brine mixture is expected to reduce costs and keep roads cleaner.

Technical Support Manager Polk County Highway Department Emil “Moe” Norby originally came up with the idea to repurpose cheese brine as an addition to the magnesium chloride that has traditionally been used to remove snow and ice from roads.

In 2008, Norby contacted F & A Dairy Products in the remote northwestern part of the dairying state. The plant manufactures 900,000 pounds of milk per day into mozzarella and provolone cheese and cures all this cheese in brine.

The brine is usually sent to waste treatment plants after the cheese is removed, but Norby thought it could be used to help clear icy highways.

“It actually worked better for us at lower temperatures than regular salt brine. We believe because the organics in the product help it not freeze at lower temperatures,” Norby told KARE TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a permit to F & A Dairy Products to repurpose its brine. The City of Milwaukee is allowed to ride on the permit, so it picked up 600 gallons to blend with rock salt.

The recipe is eight gallons of brine for every ton of salt spread on the roads, but this small amount of brine yields a 30 to 40 percent reduction in use of traditional salt.

Cheese brine remains in its liquid form at very cold temperatures, and Norby says that when the brine is blended with the rock salt, the salt sticks to the street instead of bouncing off to the roadsides.

Polk County applied for a permit in 2009 and conducted its first tests of the new substance in the 2009-2010 winter season. Norby says the county found a savings of $40,000 by using the brine mixture as compared to plain magnesium chloride.

The county has expanded its use of the brine every year since then, using more than 40,000 gallons on its highways last season.

Tony Zielinski, an alderman who represents the Bay View district, told reporters he can see other municipalities picking up on this use of waste cheese brine. “If this proves to be a success here,” he said, “I’m sure that it will be used in cities all over the country.”

Chehalis, a city of 7,300 in Washington State, also uses cheese brine in its roadway de-icing mixture.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


Coca-Cola Pours Funds Into Alternative Fuel Fleet

ATLANTA, Georgia, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – The world’s largest beverage company, Coca-Cola, is expanding its fleet of fuel-efficient hybrid delivery vehicles. In addition to the new hybrid service vans, Coca-Cola announced in October the rollout of unique refrigerated plug-in electric trucks.

Coca-Cola is converting all of its newly purchased 2014 Chevrolet Express service delivery vans into hybrids, the company said earlier this month, using XL Hybrids’ unique powertrain technology.

Boston-based XL Hybrids designs, manufactures and installs hybrid electric powertrains for commercial vans and trucks. The company’s patent-pending hybrid electric powertrain either can be installed on existing vehicles or installed as an upfit on new ones.

XL Hybrids’ technology with regenerative braking decreases fuel use and reduces CO2 emissions by up to 21.2 percent on urban or suburban routes as compared with traditional vans and trucks.

The updated vans will be on the road by the end of the year, Coca-Cola says.

“Adoption of this hybrid technology supports Coca-Cola’s goal to reduce the carbon footprint embedded in ‘the drink in your hand’ by 25 percent by 2020,” said Bruce Karas, vice president of dnvironment and sustainability for Coca-Cola.

Early test results of the XL hybrid technology showed a 15 to 20 percent fuel reduction compared to Coca-Cola’s conventional vans. The 100 new hybrid vans are expected to eliminate about 4,000 total tons of carbon dioxide emissions that conventional vans would produce over their 10-year life span.

As a result of the low maintenance and fuel savings, the powertrain unit is expected to pay for itself three times over its life span.

“We continue to make energy-saving investments because they are good for business, good for the communities we serve and good for the planet,” said Karas.

Coca-Cola currently operates the largest heavy-duty hybrid-electric delivery fleet in North America. The addition of 100 hybrid service vans builds upon this work by expanding the variety of fuel-efficient options in the company’s light-duty fleet.

“XL Hybrids provides technology that helps Coca-Cola meet its emissions reduction goals while saving money,” said Justin Ashton, vice president of business development and co-founder at XL Hybrids.

“Our company’s goal is to accelerate fuel and emissions reductions at a large scale. To accomplish this, we had to design and commercialize technology that provides a solid economic return on investment to corporate customers,” Ashton said.

In addition to the hybrid service vans, Coca-Cola announced in October the rollout of 16 first-of-its-kind refrigerated plug-in electric vehicles. Each truck and refrigeration unit produces zero tailpipe emissions, and will save the company about 90 gallons of fuel per week.

Coca-Cola says it plans to launch an 15 additional alternative fuel vehicles to service U.S. cities, including Dallas and Chicago.

Coca-Cola’s alternative fuel fleet includes hybrid-electric, liquid natural gas and compressed natural gas vehicles. Together, these vehicles reduce emissions equivalent to removing 10,000 cars from the road annually.

“Coca-Cola is intently focused on our environmental commitments. One of many ways we are delivering is by operating the largest heavy-duty hybrid electric fleet in North America” said Rick Frazier, chief product supply officer for Coca-Cola Refreshments. “By investing in hybrid vehicles we are reducing our carbon footprint while using the best possible mix of energy sources.”

To further reduce its carbon footprint, Coca-Cola utilizes a custom-designed Smartdriver program that coaches drivers in eco-driving techniques, such as minimal braking and early gear changes. To date, the company has trained about 11,000 drivers.

Coca-Cola competitor PepsiCo has over 1,300 hybrids in its fleet. Frito-Lay, a PepsiCo-owned snack foods company, has the largest company-owned fleet of electric vehicles in the United States, 269 electric trucks. Frito-Lay launched a program in 2012 to add natural gas vehicles to its fleet.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


EPA Gets the Lead Out of Soil at Newark Housing Project

NEWARK, New Jersey, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has completed the removal of lead-contaminated soil from the grounds of the Millard E. Terrell Homes, a public housing complex owned by the Newark Housing Authority. The EPA says the lead likely came from industrial facilities on and adjacent to the property dating back 165 years.

In December 2012, high levels of lead were found in soil samples collected by the EPA at a playground within the housing complex. The EPA has worked over the past year to reduce the potential for children and others to be exposed to soil with high levels of lead.

Lead is a toxic metal that can damage a child’s ability to learn and lead exposure can have serious, long-term health consequences for both children and adults. Even at low levels, lead in children can cause I.Q. deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention spans, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems. Lead exposure can cause health problems in pregnant women and can harm fetuses.

“Exposure to lead can have lifelong effects on children’s health and their development, which is why the EPA took steps to reduce potential exposure to lead in the soil at the housing complex,” said Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator.

The site is located in a mixed residential/industrial neighborhood in the Ironbound Section of Newark, bounded to the north by the Passaic River, to the south by Chapel Street and Lister Avenues, to the east by the former Diamond Alkali Site, and to the west by the Terrell Homes. The playground is located adjacent to the former Barth Smelting facility, which operated from 1946 into the late 1970s.

Prior operators at the neighboring 99 Chapel Street property include General Lead Batteries and the New Jersey Zinc Company, a former zinc smelter. The New Jersey Zinc and Iron Company, also known as the Newark Zinc Works, formerly operated their large facility at 99 Chapel Street, as well as the property now occupied by the Newark Housing Authority’s Terrell Homes.

The Zinc Works was one of the first commercial zinc oxide plants in the United States and operated on this location from 1848 to 1910.

To address this serious threat to children’s health, the EPA coordinated with the Newark Health Department; the Newark Housing Authority; a local community-based organization, the Ironbound Community Corporation; and residents of the Terrell Homes.

Beginning in December 2012, the EPA took dozens of soil samples from the playground of the Terrell Homes to determine if former industrial activity on the property and nearby had contaminated it.

Elevated concentrations of lead were found in the top two feet of soil throughout the playground area. In response, the Newark Housing Authority removed the playground equipment to discourage children from playing in the area. The EPA installed a chain-link fence around the former playground to restrict access to the lead contaminated soil.

During the spring and summer of 2013, the EPA continued to collect soil samples from the unpaved areas of the Terrell Homes property. Sampling results showed that locations behind the community building also had high levels of lead in the surface soil.

Soil removal began at the Barth Smelting site on December 5. The EPA excavated about 650 tons of soil from the former playground area and the northern property line and filled the area in with clean soil.

Now the property owner, 99 Chapel Street Partners, will install a barrier wall along the property line to prevent future movement of lead-contaminated soil from its site  to the Terrell Homes property. Complete restoration of grass, shrubs and trees is planned for spring 2014.

Throughout the EPA’s work, the community was kept informed via flyers, a website, public meetings and in-person outreach.

The Superfund program operates on the principle that polluters should pay for the cleanups, rather than passing the costs to taxpayers. This cleanup is estimated to cost approximately $1.4 million and has been funded by the EPA. The EPA will seek to recover some of its costs from the responsible parties.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


Limited Nutrients Changing Great Lakes Ecosystems

ANN ARBOR, Michigan, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – Declines of the food resources that feed lake organisms are likely causing dramatic changes in the Great Lakes, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey study.

USGS scientists and partners found that since 1998, water clarity has been increasing in a majority of the Great Lakes, while phytoplankton have been declining. These microscopic water organisms feed all other animals such as native invertebrates and prey fish.

These food web changes fundamentally affect the ecosystem’s resources and are likely caused by decreasing levels of lake nutrients, and by growing numbers of invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels.

“These findings provide critical information to help decision makers understand changes that are affecting the Great Lakes fishery that generates about $7 billion for the economy each year,” said Suzette Kimball, acting director of the USGS.

“The work is the result of a strong public-private collaboration and greatly contributes to managers’ ability to deal effectively with the changes occurring in these unique and vast freshwater ecosystems so important to our nation,” Kimball said.

The study found that inputs of phosphorus, the agricultural nutrient that limits phytoplankton growth, have declined in the Great Lakes since 1972, when the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed.

The growing numbers of invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels have caused phosphorus levels to decline further over the past 10 years in some lakes by filtering out phytoplankton and the nutrients there.

These decreases in nutrients have the potential to affect the smallest organisms up to the top predators. In Lake Huron, for example, plankton and fish appear to be controlled by declining nutrients or food.

“Our study provides a comprehensive ecological report card that highlights existing gaps in scientific understanding and monitoring of the complex Great Lakes ecosystems,” said David “Bo” Bunnell, USGS scientist and lead author of the study.

“Ideally, it will spur future research to more rigorously test some of the predictions born from our relatively simple analyses,” said Bunnell.

The Great Lakes provide ecosystem services to the 30 million people that live within the watershed, but portions have been degraded since the industrial era.

In 2010, the U.S. government initiated the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades, investing approximately $1 billion over the past four years.

USGS partners in this new study include the Computer Sciences Corporation, an information technology firm; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Michigan State University, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, University of Michigan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and University of Illinois at Chicago.

The report is published in the current issue of the journal “BioScience” and is available online.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


Nature Conservancy Works With Feds on Controlled Burns

WASHINGTON, DC, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy have formed a partnership that they say will increase and better coordinate controlled burn activities, also known as prescribed fire, on their respective lands.

The agreement will encourage more efficient use of personnel and equipment during controlled burns.

“The wildlife habitats we manage need more prescribed fire to survive and thrive, and we can get more done on the ground by working together,” said National Wildlife Refuge System Chief Jim Kurth.

Controlled burns are used by land managers to mimic the natural fire cycle and maintain fire-resilient landscapes for the benefit of people, water, and wildlife. Planned, controlled burns are a tool to help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, which have become more common over the past 10 years.

Fire is a critical habitat management tool, along with mechanical thinning and herbicides. More than 2,000 Service staffers cooperate with their federal, state and local partners each year to respond to wildfires.

According to the Service, natural fires were historically a common occurrence in the United States. They cleared overgrowth, restored nutrients to the soil, and “rebooted” the cycle of life. All told, around two-thirds of America’s forests and grasslands evolved to need the restorative power of fire at least once every 30 years.

“The use of managed, controlled burns is essential to the health of our lands and waters, and the critical life-giving benefits they provide us,” said Blane Heumann, director of fire management for the Nature Conservancy. “We can also reduce the overgrowth of fuels that feeds the mega-fires of summer.”

In total, the two entities manage more than 78 million fire-adapted acres across the United States. Last year, the Conservancy led controlled burns on nearly 105,000 acres of land it owns. Annually, the Conservancy assists the Service in burns on some 22,000 acres of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Service manages a network of fire-adapted lands in all 50 states and every U.S. territory, and needs to use prescribed fire on between 400,000 and 800,000 acres a year.

The Nature Conservancy leads the national Fire Learning Network, along with multiple federal partners, including the Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

Over the past 11 years, working under less formal local agreements, the Service and the Conservancy have worked in 39 states with 1,150 community partners to advance collaborative conservation and train more than 2,400 fire workers.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


Household Dogs Protect Against Asthma in Mice

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 27, 2013 (ENS) – Childrens’ risk for developing allergies and asthma falls when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household, and now researchers have discovered a reason why.

dog and baby
Exposure to household dogs may help protect children against asthma. (Photo by Krista Glan)

In an experiment using mice, researchers found that exposing the mice to dust from houses where dogs are permitted both indoors and outdoors can reshape the community of microbes that live in the mouse gut and diminish immune system reactivity to common allergens.

The research team is led by Dr. Susan Lynch, associate professor with the Division of Gastroenterology at University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Nicholas Lukacs,  professor with the Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan, and includes scientists from the Henry Ford Health System and Georgia Regents University.

The results were obtained in studies of mice challenged with allergens after earlier exposure to dust from homes with dogs, but the results also are likely to explain the reduced allergy risk among children raised with dogs from birth, according to the study leaders.

In their study the scientists exposed mice to cockroach or protein allergens. They discovered that asthma-associated inflammatory responses in the lungs were greatly reduced in mice previously exposed to dog-associated dust, in comparison to mice that were exposed to dust from homes without pets or mice not exposed to any dust.

The scientists identified a specific bacterial species within the mouse gut that is critical to protecting the airways against both allergens and viral respiratory infection.

The researchers homed in on one bacteria, Lactobacillus johnsonii. When they fed it alone to mice, they found it could prevent airway inflammation due to allergens or even respiratory syncytial virus infection. Severe RSV infection in infancy is associated with elevated asthma risk.

The researchers showed in this experiment that protection of the lungs’ airways was associated with reduced numbers and activity of asthma-associated immune cells.

The level of protection with this single species was less than that obtained with the full complement of dust microbes from dog owners’ homes, indicating that other, environmentally sourced bacterial species probably are necessary for full airway protection, Dr. Lynch said.

This result suggests that Lactobacillus johnsonii or other species of “good” bacteria might one day be used to reshape the gut microbiome in ways that can prevent the development of asthma or allergies, or perhaps even to treat existing cases, she said.

Lynch said, “The composition and function of the gut microbiome strongly influence immune reactions and present a novel avenue for development of therapeutics for both allergic asthma and a range of other diseases.”

Previously, the team had demonstrated that the presence of a dog that roams both inside and outside was associated with a more diverse house dust microbiome that was enriched for species found in the gastrointestinal tract of humans.

Lynch said she and Lukacs, an expert on immune responses in lung disease, “set out to investigate whether being exposed to a distinct house dust microbiome associated with indoor/outdoor dogs mediated a protective effect through manipulation of the gut microbiome and, by extension, the host immune response.”

“The results of our study indicate that this is likely to be one mechanism through which the environment influences immune responses in early life, and it is something we are currently examining using human samples in a large multi-institutional collaborative study funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,” said Lynch.

“Gut microbiome manipulation represents a promising new therapeutic strategy to protect individuals against both pulmonary infection and allergic airway disease,” she said.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is published online this week in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.


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